An admission: As I read my way through the submission queue for our literary journal, I often decide to decline a story well before its end.
It’s not that the stories are always bad. Many times the premise is interesting, and the characters as well. It may exhibit the opening tension and stakes that can pull a reader in. In fact, there may not be anything technically missing from the submission, and this proficiency is supported by the writers’ cover letters—many submitters have been published in other journals; some are contest winners or Pushcart nominees.
But for me, the stories they’ve submitted just don’t resonate.
So it’s a matter of taste, then?
Here’s an example of what appears to be decent writing, but falls short of resonating with an experienced editor:
Like hundreds of times before, Barry Jacobs watched the signals on the subway wall as the train glided under his Brooklyn neighborhood. The car rocked in rhythm with the tracks below, but the gentle swaying did little to put him at ease, even after almost ten years of traveling the L line to his office in Manhattan. This time, Madeline, the new supervisor, would be waiting for him.
“We’ll be making some changes. I’ve been working on them for a while,” she’d said. “I want to restructure how projects are assigned.”
He realized her position of newfound authority forced her to do this. She had to show the upper management she had a vision for the department’s future in order to gain their respect. He knew it was going to cause trouble for him.
This opening establishes tension and stakes, plus a hint of intrigue in Madeline’s statement about changes, which are still unspecified. Barry seems to be a sympathetic character. We are beginning to learn how he feels about his job. In terms of writing conventions this a good approach.
Jorge Luis Borges, in his “Borges and I,” broaches the idea of the writer and the person as different people. A good writer is like that; when writing she becomes someone other than the person. She becomes the writer, an alter ego who doesn’t care whether the reader loves the story. The writer cares only about the story itself, and not the recognition it might bring. That’s what editors are looking for when they read submissions—the story, not the writer. Also consider this interview with Elena Ferrante, the Italian writer whose true identity remains unknown. She not only talks about the separation of the writer and the author, she lives it.